updated 11/19/2009 1:54:00 PM ET 2009-11-19T18:54:00

Three school districts and a coalition of charter schools have agreed to be test kitchens for some radical ideas for improving teacher quality — from paying new teachers to spend another year practicing before getting their own class to letting student test scores affect teacher pay.

In exchange, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is handing them the biggest pile of cash it has spent on education reform in about a decade.

The foundation announced $290 million in grants to the four groups on Thursday, plus another $45 million for education research aimed at uncovering what exactly is an effective teacher.

The grants include $100 million to Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., $90 million to Memphis City Schools, $60 million to a coalition of charter school organizations in Los Angeles, and $40 million to Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Vicki Phillips, director of the foundation's K-12 education program, said the investment is big, the ideas are bold and she hopes the impact could rock every school and every district in the nation.

The foundation purposely picked four diverse organizations to work with: from the four corners of the U.S., of a variety of sizes and ethnic mixes, all with existing problems and some successes meeting the educational needs of their students.

A fifth district was in line to join the others, but Omaha Public Schools dropped out at the last minute after decided it could not meet the matching requirement of the grant during these tough economic times.

Smaller grants to other districts will be announced later, Phillips said.

Effective teachers
The various reform projects have a number of central themes.

They will focus on teacher training, put the best teachers in the most challenging classrooms, give the best teachers new roles as mentors and coaches while keeping them in front of children, make tenure a meaningful milestone, get rid of ineffective teachers, and use money to motivate people and schools to move toward these goals.

"If you could boil what we know in education down to one sentence, it truly would be, 'Nothing is as important as an effective teacher,'" Phillips said.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent in Hillsborough County, believes these experiments will be closely watched by everyone running a school district.

If the results are close to expectations, other districts won't have a choice but to find the money to make similar changes, she said.

"We owe it to the children," Elia said.

She hopes her Tampa district can set an example for other large districts dealing with similar challenges. It's the eighth largest in the nation with 190,000 students spread out over an area the size of Rhode Island.

Kriner Cash, superintendent in Memphis, expects to be watched very closely by everyone who cares about equal opportunity. In her district, 86 percent of the 108,915 students are African American and 83 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

"All professionals involved in guiding and educating children have a stake in this work," Cash said.

More on: Gates Foundation

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